For the final Shema Kolainu workshop of the spring season, Dr. Stephen Shore of Adelphi University helped the audience with tips on disaster readiness involving people with autism.
When someone on the autism spectrum suffers from sensory overload or social difficulties, this adds an entirely new layer of difficulty to an already stressful situation. First responders, whether police officers, firemen, or 911 operators, are trained to respond quickly and often harshly. Even with just a small amount of awareness and training, authorities acting during emergencies can utilize effective and gentler techniques to accommodate a person with autism.
When a child or adult with autism encounters a police officer, there are some “unwritten rules” that may be understood by most, but are frequently missed. For example, a teenager with autism may come off as overly blunt or disrespectful when answering an officer, since they speak quite literally or may not understand the question being asked. One in a series of videos that Dr. Shore screened for the audience showed adults with autism being read their Miranda rights. Because of their difficulty communicating, many of these individuals did not understand their rights to remain silent, and whether they should be waived.
Dr. Shore emphasized in his presentation that a first responder should remain very calm and use extra patience when dealing with an autistic person. Flashing lights or a burning building are very intense for a child on the autism spectrum; it should be expected that their reaction will be intense as well, and a screaming meltdown may well ensue. It is important to comfort the child instead of demanding answers from them. In many cases, it may be required to restrain the person, so that they don’t run back into the fire or another situation that is dangerous for themselves and others.
Disaster preparedness is not only a topic of interest for authorities; perhaps the very first responder in an emergency is a parent. Therefore, parents must take extra steps to ensure their autistic child’s safety. Dr. Shore suggested that parents notify local authorities of their child’s condition and address, preparing police officers and other government officials for a situation where they may encounter their child in a state of high stress. They can then be educated on exactly how to handle the situation.
Parents may also alert others by providing their child with a medical ID bracelet, clearly giving out their name while making others aware of their condition, which is particularly helpful if the child is non-verbal. Another idea is to affix a sticker decal onto a car, or even on a child’s backpack, that lets others know how an emergency should be handled.
Sometimes, locking the doors is not always enough to ensure a child’s safety. It is advised that parents of an autistic child keep a close eye on them at all times, and that there is always a plan in place for when something goes wrong.